This week, scientists made a disturbing discovery in the Arctic Ocean: They saw “vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor,” as the Stockholm University put it in a release disclosing the observations. The plume of methane—a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat more powerfully than carbon dioxide, the chief driver of climate change—was unsettling to the scientists.
But it was even more unnerving to Dr. Jason Box, a widely published climatologist who had been following the expedition.
Dr. Jason Box’s view of the consequences “if even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere” is that we’re fucked. He’s an expert on the subject, and that’s his view of it. He tweeted that view of it.
I called the scientist at his office in Copenhagen, and he talked frankly and emphatically about the new threat, and about the specter of climate change in general. He also swore like a sailor, which I’ve often wondered how climatologists refrain from doing, given the urgency of the problem—it’s certainly an entirely accurate way to communicate the climate plight.
First of all, I asked Box if he stood by that tweet. He did. He’d revise it a bit, to include surface carbon—methane locked in the permafrost that’s also beginning to leak out—because if we loose enough of either, we’re in trouble.
“Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked,” he told me. What alarmed him was that “the methane bubbles were reaching the surface. That was something new in my survey of methane bubbles,” he said.
Hotter faster. Not good.
It’s especially worrying because the Arctic is warming faster than nearly anywhere else on Earth. Now, along with melting sea ice and thawing permafrost, we have to add to our list of ‘feedback loop’ concerns that warming Arctic oceans may be releasing fonts of methane. That is, the warmer the ocean gets, the more methane gets spewed out of those stores on the continental shelf, and the warmer the ocean gets, ad infinitum.
Ad infinitum doesn’t work for us. We didn’t evolve in ad infinitum. Not at all at all. We evolved in a particular climate, which is apparently being boiled away like water in a hot skillet. Humans won’t do well in a hot skillet.
“We’re on a trajectory to an unmanageable heating scenario, and we need to get off it,” he said. “We’re fucked at a certain point, right? It just becomes unmanageable. The climate dragon is being poked, and eventually the dragon becomes pissed off enough to trash the place.”
It was refreshing to hear a climatologist pull no punches, while still eloquently and accurately summarizing the science—even though an increasing number are becoming proactive, like the paleoclimatologist Dr. Michael Mann, and top climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, climate scientists are still learning how to engage the public in a manner that’s forceful and compelling. Like Dr. Hansen, Box has a deeply personal reason to sound the alarm.
“I may escape a lot of this,” he said, “but my daughter might not. She’s 3 years old.” Climate change may not destabilize the globe in our lifetime, or even his daughter’s—but the fact that feedback loops like methane release could rapidly accelerate the warming means that there’s a chance rapid climate transformation—and the social and economic catastrophes that would likely accompany it—could strike sooner.